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A Highlander and his Books

A Bibliography of the William R. Smith Collection
In the Library of the Supreme Council, 33º, S.J.

Larissa P. Watkins, Author
Joan K. Sansbury, Editor
Robert G. Watkins, Jr., Consultant
Akram Elias, Grand Master to Free and Accepted Masons

Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

This is a handsome book, beautifully adorned with many fine postage-sized illustrations and one of the best kept secrets in America -- the William R. Smith Collection of Robert Burns. This collection has been dormant since the death of the collector in 1912, and this book has been published in anticipation of the 250th celebration of the birth of Robert Burns. It is one of many books you will see celebrating the birth of Burns in the coming year.

The article on Burns is of interest to those who are not familiar with the Masonic aspect of the poet’s life. Of equal note, if not more so, is an article by Kevin Fries on the life of the collector, William. R. Smith. Neither the collection nor the collector is well known outside the Masonic community, so Mr. Fries basically introduces Smith to the general public. I’m sure we will hear more from Kevin Fries in the future about this great Burnsian. I must add that the descriptions of each entry in the book are pleasant and pleasing to the reader. One can tell that much planning and energy went into the publication of the book. I am further compelled to say that author Larissa Watkins has kindly answered my questions and provided explanations where needed. I appreciate the courtesies extended to me by Ms. Watkins during the course of writing this review.

William Robertson Smith bought his first copy of Burns’ work as a young boy in Scotland, and he continued to collect Burns throughout a long career as a horticulturalist and as Superintendent of the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. for over 40 years. From the Burns Centenary in 1896, Smith worked with the friendly interest and financial backing of Andrew Carnegie during the last 15 years of his life to build a collection consisting of both Scottish books and publications by and about Burns. The books were stored in a wee cottage on the grounds of the Botanic Garden.  According to an account in The Scottish Rite Journal, few people were aware of the treasures stored inside the cottage.

Since becoming acquainted with the Smith Collection and the relationship of Andrew Carnegie with William Smith, I have wondered why the collection does not boast a Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It cannot be because there was no money available since Mr. Carnegie, the famous Scottish-American who built many libraries around the world, is on record as patron of the Smith Collection. However, if Carnegie was known then as now for anything, it was for his philanthropy, and today his foundation is valued at well over $1.3 billion. The case of the missing Kilmarnock in the Smith Collection just doesn’t make sense to me.

Smith wanted the collection kept together after his death and with that goal in mind, Carnegie who was appointed by Smith as a trustee of the Burns collection, approached both the Library of Congress and the Public Library in Washington. Ironically, there “was no room in the inn”, neither of them. At times this is the case, but sometimes the “no room” reply is used to not accept collections because of the strings attached to a gift of books. Later, the decision was made to house the collection in the newly completed House of the Temple. As Mr. Smith stipulated in his will, the collection has been open to the public ever since, and he is on record as stating, “I am Scotch-American, and I intend that this collection shall go to the American People.”

All well and good but how do you translate his good intentions to serve the public with the braggadocio of a few well meaning people? In all the years I have written book reviews, I have never written a negative review. This is my first! With that said, it is highly unusual for me to raise a red flag about a book, but as we go along with this review, you will see my concern.

Pay attention to the first two sentences in the book’s Foreword: “The Library of the Supreme Council of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A., is the repository of the most complete collection of the literary works of Robert Burns and Burnsiana in America. It is also important to note that this collection, known as the William Robertson Smith Collection, is the second largest compilation of Burns materials in the world, ranking only behind the collection maintained in The Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland.”

The above noted author, editor, consultant and Grand Master have affixed their names to this book, and I can only assume they accept as truth these two sentences. With all due respect to them, both sentences are flat wrong!

Where are the facts? Well, just because someone said something years ago does not make it true today. What sort of research, if any, was conducted by those responsible for the book to reach the conclusion that their collection is bigger and better today than any outside Scotland? Is this sloppy research, a lack thereof, or just plain arrogance?  

I must regretfully inform them that not only is the William. R. Smith Collection not “the most complete collection of the literary works of Robert Burns and Burnsiana in America”, it is also not “the second largest compilation of Burns material in the world”. That distinction belongs to another collection that I shall tell you about as we go along.  

I have corresponded with the author about the statement in the Foreword and Ms. Watkins’ answer follows: “From one hand it might be some sort of legend (everybody would like to be First, or at least Second). From another hand it will remain a true (sic) until somebody from University of South Carolina is going to do a comparative bibliography of Burn’s works from 1786 to 1911 of G. Ross Roy’s Collection with our Burnsiana.” If I were a trial attorney, I’d use the first part of that reply and say to the jury, “I rest my case!” As to the second part of her reply, while I appreciate the author’s statement, I cannot agree that “somebody from the University of South Carolina is going (needs) to do a comparative bibliography of Burns works”. I can do it myself.

We all are capable of doing our own research if we chose. Some do, some don’t. I do. I have purchased the Smith bibliography and have read it and referred to it numerous times. I have also studied the materials available online about the Roy Collection. Further inquiry with personnel at USC’s Thomas Cooper Library found that a bibliography is in the process of being prepared for publication, and I have since acquired a preliminary copy. I have studied the two collections at length and compared them to each other. I do not need anyone, scholar or not, to tell me the results of something I can see for myself. The evidence is clear enough to support the University of South Carolina’s G. Ross Roy Robert Burns Collection as the largest and most comprehensive Burns collection outside of Scotland.

It is evident the good folks writing about the Smith Collection were aware of the Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina.  They could have “Googled” the Roy Collection and found enough information about it to have raised some caution on their part for proclaiming the Smith collection the biggest and best. At the time of their publication they, of course, were unable to receive a preliminary copy of the Roy bibliography since it is just now in its pre-publishing stage. Regardless, with the available Roy Collection information on the internet, someone could have inquired, “Are we really all that we have said we are or has that collection down in South Carolina replaced our Burns collection as the most comprehensive?” At the very least, someone could have picked up the phone and called the USC Thomas Cooper Library to get details on the Roy collection. It would have saved them some embarrassment of proclaiming the superiority of their Smith Collection. Egg on one’s face is not a pretty sight, with or without a bib!

Let’s look at just a few comparisons of the two bibliographies. First, as mentioned earlier, the Smith Collection does not have a first edition of the 1786 Kilmarnock which they readily acknowledge. In Chapter I of the book’s “Bibliographical Entries” entitled “Works of Robert Burns”, this sentence is found: “The William R. Smith Collection does not contain the original Kilmarnock Edition.” Instead, McNaught’s 1909 facsimile of the 1786 Kilmarnock Edition is used as an illustration. The Roy Collection does have a Kilmarnock Edition. It is one thing to have a facsimile of the most coveted Burns book in the world, and it is another thing to hold “the real thing” in your hands. Why is this book so important? It is widely held by Burnsians in the know that of the 612 copies of the Kilmarnock Edition published July 31, 1786, fewer than 70 copies are known to survive today.

The Smith Collection does have a copy the second edition (the 1787 Edinburgh edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect), but two variants were printed that year and the Smith Collection does not identify which of the two states is in their collection. (Nor does the format of the book tell the reader if they have more than one copy.) The Roy Collection has several copies of each of the two states.

Most importantly, however, I did not see in the Smith Collection a copy of The Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson or George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs. (Yes, one “t” in earlier versions.) Listen up! Robert Burns only spent the last ten years of his life collecting, writing, modifying, mending, fixing, or rearranging these wonderful songs of Scotland. Both the Johnson and Thomson books contained hundreds of songs by Burns. This was his gift to his country. The Roy Collection has originals of both. The Smith Collection has neither!

Dr. Ross Roy recently gifted over 20 original manuscripts to the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina. These are original manuscripts as penned by Robert Burns himself. They consist of letters and poems. The Smith Collection does not boast one original manuscript or song by Burns.

There is no mention of the 1799 edition of The Merry Muses of Caledonia being a part of the Smith Collection, nor of any subsequent edition. The Roy Collection has one of the only two known original copies of the 1799 edition in existence and “the only one with a complete title page”. But, in deference to Mr. Smith and the times he lived, perhaps he did not agree with that part of Burns’s writing. But most Burns scholars will agree that to know Burns, you have to know all of Burns and bawdry songs and poems, risqué matters for polite company, were a part of his day and a part of his life. A coin has two sides. You can’t have one without the other. The same is true about Burns. You have to have both sides of him to have the complete Burns.

In addition to this original copy of The Merry Muses in the USC Thomas Cooper Library, there are 18 other editions, states, and variant printings of The Merry Muses on the market before 1912, the year of Mr. Smith’s death. So, copies of this book were available for Mr. Smith to collect, as was the Kilmarnock, had he chosen to do so.  Remember, Mr. Carnegie was his patron.

There is a great section of the Smith bibliography dealing with so-called “Chapbooks”, small paperbacks geared for the average man’s income, and the Smith Collection lists 241 of them. The problem is that they only contain a few about Burns, and I am being lenient on that point. I actually found only two with Burns’ name in the title. A few others had a song or a poem in the contents. It would be best suited to list the chapbooks as part of a Scottish Collection, not Burns.

Let’s look briefly at both bibliographies. Mr. Smith’s bibliography consists of 161 pages (8½x11) sans index, and Dr. Roy’s bibliography has 378 pages (6x9) sans index. The Smith Collection has 1,202 total Burns items (again some, as in the chapbook section, are not about Burns, so you could easily drop that number to around a thousand and that is being generous) while the Roy Collection has over 5,200 on Burns alone. The total Scottish collection of Mr. Smith is 5,500 while the Roy Collection has over 20,000 total Scottish volumes.

I could go on about the differences of the two collections but there is no need. I inquired of Ms. Watkins if the Smith Collection had remained dormant since Mr. Smith passed away in 1912 or if additional books had been purchased or given to the collection. “Yes, this collection remained dormant” was her reply. Suffice it to say that the Roy Collection is on-going, vibrant, alive, and has been endowed by Dr. and Mrs. Roy to continue acquiring Burns items in the future. Just recently a replica of the skull of Burns was added to the collection. It was brought back to America from Scotland by the 84-year-old emeritus professor himself. And I feel it is a safe bet that something has been added to his collection as you’ve read this article.

Let me say I am not a Mason and certainly have no quarrel with this worthy organization. I have the highest respect for the Masons, and I am aware of the good works they have performed around the world in the name of humanity and have admired their benevolence and generosity over the years. I am aware of the high regard Robert Burns had for the Masons and his involvement with them. But this review is not about good works, it is about sloppy research. To put it simply, in this case, someone somewhere did not do their homework.

Andrew Carnegie was a friend of Mr. Smith, a patron of his collection, and some say he is the one who supposedly proclaimed the Smith Collection the best outside of Scotland. I have been unable to locate that quote from Carnegie, and in a follow-up email with Mr. Fries, who wrote the book’s refreshing article on Mr. Smith, I learned neither has he.

I discovered, however, in the January 1997 publication of the Mason’s The Scottish Rite Journal that the Librarian of the Edinburgh Public Library and his associates came to the United States to catalog the Smith Collection soon after it was moved to Alexandria.  They stated, “We are impressed by the number and rarity of its editions which are beyond what is in the British Museum and exceeded only by the Mitchell Library collection in Glasgow.” It probably was true when the collection first opened to the public in 1919 but is not the case now, nearly a hundred years later, no matter who says it, Grand Master, librarian or common citizen.

Subject: Response on review

Dear Mr. Shaw,

Thank you so much for mentioning our catalog on electricscotland website.  In response, I would like to present my own personal viewpoint concerning your comments. 

I am sorry for having my Russian mind upside-down, but I didn’t see a book review in your piece at all. What I did see was a quite unfair attack only on the two first sentences of Mr. Elias introduction (what if Akram would have written that our collection is 25th on the rank?).  What would be the point of your “review” then?  Why then the high appraisal for Roy’s collection be necessary?  After all, a University Library is an academic Library, and its primary goal is to continue to collect what ever the collection might be for the sake of education.

O, yes, we might argue on details and we might show how smart we are to do our own comparative biography, etc., but in this particular case we should be more aware and more sensitive about the spiritual value of this enterprise. We would be missing the main point – love to Rabby Burns!

I understand the overall situation here to be a little bit different.  I am not a Great Scot, but I am proud for the Fraternity, which one hundred years ago accepted this collection and continues to preserves it in one of the most beautiful rooms in the House of the Temple. I am proud for the Fraternity, which found it possible to publish a beautifully illustrated catalog as a token of high respect, admiration, and love for Robert Burns – the epitome of the Spirit of the Scottish Nation. I am proud of my colleagues, who expressed their brotherly veneration for Robert Burns (in this context their “sloppy research” should be forgiven.) 

I understand - you are a Great Scot and your independent nature calls you to fight despite of the fact that there are no enemies around, only friends.

However, I want to believe that you do like our catalog, because it connects the name of Robert Burns with two great Presidents of our country – Washington and Lincoln.

I want to believe that you do like our catalog, because it introduced you to another Great Scot – William Robertson Smith and his amazing gift to all of us.

I want to believe that you do like our catalog, because of the dozens of images which are dearest to your soul and let you emotionally be more close to Rabby and to your motherland.

I want to believe that you do like our catalog, because it gives you a rare opportunity to enjoy quotations from dozens of books about Robert Burns, and let your heart respond in admiration for him.

And, importantly, I want to believe we’ll remain friends, because of our mutual affection to Caledonia Bard!

My very best wishes for Happy, Healthy, and Prosper New Year,


It has always been my desire to be as fair as possible to any book I review and that goes for the author as well. It is for this reason that I elect to print this response to the review from the author. My final remarks on this subject is that The Smith Collection in Washington, D. C. is a first class collection, top drawer, one to be proud of and one of the finest in the world. BUT, it is a long way from being the top Burns Collection in America, and neither does it rank just behind the collection at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. It may have at one time but today that honor belongs to the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina and I challenge anyone to make an item by item comparison and come up with a different conclusion. I again extend my thanks to the author, Ms. Larissa Watkins for her many courtesies and help while writing the review and to Ms. Jeri Walker for supplying the pictures used in the article. (FRS: 1.05.08) 

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